Blasphemy Laws

My essay on blasphemy has been published on the Human Rights For Atheists & Agnostics blog! Apparently it’s the first one to have been selected too. Kewl beans!
I hope you will all check it out, as it is a very important movement. In the essay I point out things such as:

[I]n a world without religion there would be no such thing as blasphemy. In fact, the very notion of offending religious sensibilities can only be erected under the umbrella of religious faith. Outside of religion, however, blasphemy is by and large a meaningless concept.

Also, please sign the petition to abolish anti-blasphemy laws if you haven’t already. Many people, both religious and secular have already signed it.

You can find the Human Rights for Atheists & Agnostics on Facebook here (after the jump).

Here’s the main site:

Why I Changed My Mind About Marriage and Monagamy, and Why Open Marriage Makes More Logical Sense

I am a huge fan of the hit television series Elementary. It stars Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes in modern day New York City of the 21st century. His partner, Joan Wattson, is played by the elegant and sexy Lucy Liu. The show is quite brilliant, and I prefer it to Steven Moffatt’s gimmicky Sherlock, even though I love Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
At any rate, there is a great speech made by Johnny Lee Miller’s Holmes in the second season where he rants about the cultural tradition of marriage. He completely dismantles how artificial it is, how culturally contrived, and how it is analogous more to a prison sentence than any kind of genuine expression of love. At the end of his speech I literally jump up out of my seat and cheered.
Not that I don’t like a good wedding. Weddings are fun. I like the festivities of it all. I, unlike Sherlock Holmes, like the unabashed expressions of love. But that doesn’t change the fact that monogamous marriage practices, traditionally speaking, are designed to restrict the lover’s rights with respect to the types of relationships they may partake in and do little in the way to recognize any expression of love beyond the pomp and circumstance of the wedding. There are so many cultural restrictions to traditional monogamous marriage that it seems far too limited (or too limiting) to be a good representation of the most excellent forms of marriage possible. 
Feel free to disagree if you like, but please hear me out first.
Being raised a Christian, I was taught that things like virtue and chastity went hand in hand. One true love was supposed to be the ideal notion of romantic love, one man and one woman, and there was no room for cheating or any such betrayals, and the act of infidelity was akin to some kind of unforgivable crime.
I even thought this way for a time after my own marriage. But gradually, over the eight years I’ve been married and the ten years I’ve been with my wife, I began to see that marriage was wholly  predicated on outmoded practices such as on ownership rights, dowries, and the patriarchal tradition of a man accepting the wife as chattel. In fact, the modern notion that marriage should be about love rather than ownership and family inheritance rights is actually a fairly recent concept.
Over time, the idea of one man belonging to one woman, and vise versa, has been interpreted as one heart belonging to another. But I find this likely to be little more than a reformulation of the same monetary values placed on the ownership of another which has simply been updated to fit with our modern sensibilities, since we know ownership of another is technically a bad thing. So why should we uphold such a notion as the ideal sort of romantic love? Pop music is laden with lovers saying I belong to you and you belong to me, and quite frankly, it makes me sick. Not because it’s overly sentimental, but because it’s morbidly archaic.
In my mind, our hearts shouldn’t be limited to one, or even that restricted to a sense of ownership over the object of our affection, but we should be open and free to practice an unlimited and unrestricted kind of love. But I’ll come back to my reasons why I feel this way now in a moment.
The idea that marriage should be between one man and one woman largely stems from the teachings of the Christian Bible, which in turn influenced much of Western culture’s marriage practices, but it’s not the only marriage practice out there. Even though Muslims believe in the God of Abraham, many Muslims practice polygamy. So did American Mormons for a time. Most of northern Africa practices polygamy today. Certain areas, like the nomadic tribes in Nepal still practice polyandry (where the woman takes on many husbands). Then there is polyamory, or group marriage, which is frequently practiced among the tribes people of Australia, including the Kurnandaburi, the Wakelbura, and the Kurnai.

Needless to say, however, because many countries were founded by Christian settlers, along with the widespread influence of Christianity, many of the customs and laws reflect the Christian mindset regarding marriage practices.
It’s why polygamy is illegal in the U.S. (Edmunds Act of 1882), for example, even though there is no logical reason for such a law in the 21st century. More recently the constitutional scholar Richard A. Vazquez has argued that the anti-polygamy laws in the U.S. are unconstitutional because the infringe on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Vazquez concludes that
“The judiciary has historically done an unsatisfactory job in building up a record based on public policy interests in order to sustain criminal bigamy laws against Free Exercise challenges. Instead, the courts have relied on a “public morality” rhetoric to justify the criminalization of polygamy.”
Although the Free Exercies Clause does seem to be infringed on the religious practice of polygamy, for example, none of the charges brought against the practice seem to definitively demonstrate that, as a alternative to monogamy, it does any harm. The harm comes from other aspects of the religions which have traditionally practiced polygamy, like not educating their women or confining them to specific religious dress codes and taking away their rights. But as a alternative form of marriage, there is nothing that had shown polygamy or polyandry bad, or inferior, marriage models. It is only because of the Christian mind-set of “one man, one woman” that Christians oppose alternative marriage models on “moral” grounds–which is to say anything that doesn’t conform to the Christian standard of morals is automatically regarded as bad.
Over the past three or four years I have come to see that open marriage models are perhaps better for married couples. Allow me to explain.
The entire notion that you want only one person for all time, likely a byproduct of the “love” chemicals clouding your brain, fails to take into consideration that sometimes people change, and that sometimes people fall out of love. Love is only forever in the fairy tale stories, but in real life genuine love undergoes constant change, and maintaining it proves a lot more difficult than people anticipate when they are in the throes of twitterpation.
As Kayt Sukel observes in her book Dirty Minds, “The chemistry [brain] changes as you move from being in the first throes of passionate love to a committed relationship.”
Yes, our brains literally change. And sometimes they change back. Call it chemical ebb and flow, if you will.
Traditional, monogamous marriage doesn’t prepare you for the shock of infidelity, since under the model of “belonging” to each other infidelity is the senseless notion that love is everlasting doesn’t prepare you for that time when love stops being about passion and romance and the person goes off and finds that love elsewhere, in a new relationship, and therefore is viewed as an act of betrayal, because you’re not supposed to “belong” to anyone else, after all.
That nobody belongs to anybody else should somehow be a shocking revelation is beyond me, but in the realm of love and war, well, it seems this myth of “one man, one woman” belonging to one another is artificially buttressed by archaic marriage practices which stress an unyielding monogamy.
But not everyone is naturally monogamous. There are promiscuous types too. And all kinds in-between.

In Kayt Sukel’s investigation into the subject, she found that human monogamy was much less strict than people think it is, and that overall humans tend to be much more promiscuous. Without cultural restraints, it is assumed that human societies would be more promiscuous than not. In fact, this is represented quite well in chapter six where Sukel shows that our brains our fine-tuned for porn (and that we–both men and women–literally desire the act of sex with others, even if we merely fantasize about it, regardless of how monogamous we may think we are).

Additionally, a recent study from New York University and Cornell University has shown that promiscuous types enjoy casual sex more readily, and that casual sex actually has far more positive benefits than people commonly think–so much so that the positive outweighs the negative–making it highly likely that engaging in casual sex is good for you as it impacts your life in positive ways.

An open marriage model would allow for these positive benefits from enjoying casual sex whereas stricter monogamous marriages would not.

Further problems with classic monogamous marriage models, other than the unhealthy notion that people can actually belong to each other, is the fact that monogamy actually creates and environment where jealousy can thrive and flourish.
When you are under the notion that your lover “belongs” to you, or should remain committed to you, their promiscuity, flirtation, and perhaps even cheating will send many into an irrational rage.
Under the paradigm of monogamous relationships, someone who breaks their vows has broken a ‘sacred’ contract, and this sets up the married couple for a world of emotional stress and heartache. Needless suffering, I might add–all because of the artificial restrictions of cultural monogamy. Because under the open marriage model, and honest couple, who allow for a certain agreed upon promiscuity, flirtation, and perhaps even flings wouldn’t necessarily have anything to be jealous about.
Another problem with monogamous marriage relationships is that they put expectations on the other person, and yourself, expecting you never to have a moment of weakness. You must be true to your vows, no matter what! But if you get caught cheating even once, well, you are seen as a scumbag by the other person, their friends, your peers, and you can risk being ostricized. Moreover, you may risk severe depression by feeling that you have let yourself, and your loved ones, down.
Here’s the thing though, if you have an open marriage, cheating isn’t necessarily cheating. If the partners agree to and allow for additional relationships, within whatever that agreed upon context may be, so long as you continue to honor your basic obligations in the domestic areas of your marriage then there is no such thing as infidelity–at least not in the sense we are familiar with.
This open marriage model allows for both parties to have extra-marital relationships, therefore neither one would be in danger of succumbing to the pure pressure placed on them by society, by their friends and family, and by anyone who expects them to, stay true to only your significant other. You are free to have many significant others, and this, I feel, ought to be viewed as a good thing.
Another thing that gets under my skin about traditional marriage is that it makes it seem as though your human, biological instincts are a aberrations. Lusting after others isn’t viewed as your sex drive alerting you to the fact that you’re still alive, but rather, is viewed as something of a perversion.
Such devaluing of our basic human nature is unnecessary, and even absent, in open marriage models which celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of our biological sex drives.
Monogamous marriages also seem to boo-poo the idea that humans are, in general, more or less promiscuous. It seems to want us to go against our natures, and then, if we can’t abide by impossible standards, it convinces us we are weak for not having met those impossible standards.
Now, not everybody is promiscuous, mind you, and there are certainly those who are more promiscuous than others, but acting like everyone should exhibit the exact level of promiscuity is nonsensical. Everyone is different. Different needs have different requirements.
The problem arises when you try to hold promiscuous people with extremely high sex drives to this standard model of monogamy. The two simply aren’t compatible. If monogamy works for you, then great, but it’s not for everybody. And I have come to the conclusion it is certainly not for me.
I know what you’re all thinking. Well, what does my wife think about all this? Well, we’ve talked on the subject, and as it turns out she is much more monogamous than I am. But this doesn’t mean we aren’t compatible or that we can’t allow for each others unique quirks.
The trick is learning to communicate well with your partner. If you put it on the line, and come out as a promiscuous type, then you can discuss what the next step will be.
There is always a chance that your partner will leave you because they cannot accept you for you, and well, that would be wise because if they cannot accept you then they could never fully, truly love you.
But there is also a chance that they haven’t gone mad from envy and actually have an open mind. They may even let you, within reason, have your additional relationships, knowing that’s what you need. Then again, they might not, and that could lead to unwanted tension.
Another misconception about open marriages is that the spouse is relegated to something akin to a used up old rag. But just because you are free to have consensual adult relationships with others doesn’t mean you stop loving your primary partner
Some people think that if you have an open marriage you are this sex-crazed person who will go around catching STDs all over the place. That’s simply not true. Being a promiscuous type doesn’t automatically also make you into a moron.
But those in open marriages who may have more than one sexual partner do have to stay extra safe and be smart about their choices, especially since there is more than just yourself who will be impacted by your choices.
It goes without saying that open marriage models aren’t without their faults either. 
One problem which arises with an open marriage model is when one of your ancillary relationships becomes quite serious, and the person you may have been having a casual relationship with suddenly wants to become a more integral part of your life. Due to certain laws (usually based on models of monogamy), however, they aren’t allowed to (at least not in the U.S.–sort of depends on your geographic location).
This inevitably leads us to a conversation about polyamory, and having multiple intimate relationships with people who may also form multiple intimate relationships. People think of polyamorous relationship models as one giant orgy, but this is completely the wrong way to think about them.
Polyamorous relationships are more like relationship networks than they are a free-for all love fest. After all, this is about adult relationships, intimacy, and close bonds we are talking about here–not just sex. Although, to be fair, most mature adult relationships also incorporate sex as an integral aspect to the intimacy quotient. 
Like any other social network polyamorous relationships, or group relationships, allow for highly intricate exchanges and numerous types of personalities and relationships. The only problem I find is if someone disrupts the network, then they can cause problems for everyone. 
Usually these people will get shunned or booted out of the group, and the person who was in the relationship with that person will have to make the hard choice to either go along with them or else let them go and maintain the structure of the relationship network.
Again, like open marriage models, polyamorous relationship models aren’t perfect either. Polyamory undergoes more change, where structural relationships shift, bonds of closeness form and are reformed on a person to person basis, and lends itself to a more organic style of relationship types. If you’ve ever had a best friend in grade school, and a few years later your best friend changed to someone else, only to have this happen again in high school or college is slightly more representative of how polyamorous relationships may shift within the group. 
Of course, this type of relationship model isn’t for everyone either, as some people need a more structured, more simplistic systems to form meaningful relationships in. Needless to say, polyamory is a much more complex and involved relationship model.
Which brings me back to the open marriage model. Even though it’s not quite as open or fluid as polyamory, even though it’s not ideally suited for the same level of intimacy in forming close knit bonds, it’s still much more flexible than monogamy. 
In my opinion, monogamous relationships actually compound negative emotions, like jealousy, one’s sense of ownership over others, the notion that being cheated on is a disgrace instead of a common occurrence, and the idea that you’re a no good failure should you get caught cheating, and so on and so forth.
Under the open marriage model or group marriage model, there is relatively little to none of this negative cultural feedback.
I once had a conversation with my brilliant friend Kaede Matsushima, who was a leading AV Idol in Japan for a considerable time, regarding the subject of marriage and her thoughts toward it. I asked her what she thought about open marriages and she informed me that she wouldn’t even agree to marry any partner who didn’t agree upfront to have an open marriage with her. 
Wow! I thought this showed a lot of foresight and open mindedness on her behalf. She still wants to marry someone she loves, but she also happens to realize she is the promiscuous type. And instead of breaking some fool’s heart, she is prepared to be up front and honest about her relationship needs, expectations, and requirements.
At any rate, this isn’t a definitive case for open marriage or polyamory, rather I have just listed some considerations that I have had during my reflection on the cultural restrictions of traditional monogamous marriage models which, ultimately, lead me to change my mind and lead me to reconsider the validity of alternative relationship and marriage models.

There are of course many more reasons why I think open marriage and polyamorous relationships make more sense logically, but perhaps this will be a discussion for another time. Until then, what are your thoughts about alternative relationship styles and marriage models? Should they be illegal? Or should they just be allowed as alternative practices, as seen in the SyFy channels Battlestar Galactica spin-off series Caprica–where polyamory was heavily featured? Let me know in the comments section down below. 

Sunshine: Why It’s a Great Science Fiction Film

My brother-in-blog Mike Doolittle took a break from writing on religion and philosophy for a day to talk about the science fiction feature Sunshine, directed by Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle (Slum Dog Millionaire, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting, etc.).
Mike’s article, The (pseudo) science of the film “Sunshine”, nitpicks the minor scientific blunders of the film. He claims that:
“…in the case of Sunshine, the science was butchered so badly that it actually affected my suspension of disbelief. Some of it goes back to long-overused tropes, like freezing almost immediately when you’re exposed to the vacuum of space, or a big whooshing decompression that sucks everyone into space. My good friend and comrade in blog, the mighty Tristan Vick, remarked that he loved Sunshine and told me it was ‘the most scientifically accurate movie I’ve ever seen.’”
Mike then proceeds to list all the scientific flaws he could detect in the film. He lists approximately 14 major scientific blunders, informing us that “the entire premise is both impossible and implausible.”
What Mike is referring to, of course, is the premise of the sun dying. He goes on to explain that it wouldn’t die in the way the film depicts. But is the premise really both impossible and implausible?
Well, I have two things to say on this. First, this is actually the McGuffin of the film. We’re not supposed to know exactly why the star is going out, only that it is, and so as the McGuffin of the story we needn’t have a nailed down explanation. The mystery of not knowing why the sun is dying adds to the mystery and suspense of the film.
That said, I pointed out to Mike that the science consultant on the film, the one and only Dr. Brian Cox of the LHC at Cern and famous for his BBC series Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System, states in the special features that there is, in point of fact, a plausible (although perhaps not possible) scientific explanation for the sun’s faltering in the film. It’s something called a Q-ball.
Needless to say, the plot of Sunshine does not revolve around the sun dying in the typical sense of a star’s normal heat death and collapse, which seems to make Mike’s objections here irrelevant, since everything he argues for is a standard star’s death. Instead of a normal star death, our sun has been infected with what is called a “Q-ball” – a supersymmetric nucleus, left over from the big bang – that is disrupting the normal matter at the star’s core. This is a theoretical particle that scientists at CERN are currently trying to confirm, one which Brian Cox actually bets his colleagues in the special features interview that they *won’t actually find. At any rate, the film’s bomb is meant to blast the Q-ball to its constituent parts which will then naturally decay, allowing the sun to return to normal.
So it appears the McGuffin which drives the plot in Sunshine actually is scientifically plausible, at least theoretically. Whether it’s possible or not actually depends on what the real scientists discover about Q-ball theories.
Another point Mike contends is the airlock scene, where the astronauts have to jettison out into the vaccum of space. As he explains it:
“In one scene, a few of the astronauts have to decompress an airlock and shoot 20 meters through space to another airlock — but only one of them has a suit. When the airlock is blown, they’re sucked out in a big whoosh. This would not happen. If a spaceship decompressed, the force of decompression might suck out some loose objects, but you’d just sit there and die of vacuum exposure. This is especially true in an airlock, which doesn’t contain nearly enough air to create much of any force.”
I was a bit fuzzy on this part of the film, so I popped in my Bluray and jumped to the scene in question (see the 50:50 mark in the film). After a violent malfunction and collision, the Icarus 2 informs them that the Icarus one that they have a hull breach and are venting atmosphere. At the same time, the decoupling has torn the Icarus one’s outer airlock to shreds. Mace even says, “The airlock is ripped in half, once we break that seal how are we going to repressurize?” (48:40 mark)
So the astronauts have only one attempt to launch themselves out into space and try and get through the open, still functioning, airlock on the Icarus two. As fate would have it, they have one suit, which they give to Capa, since he’s the brains of the operation and they need him to operate the payload. As such Harvey and Mace will be going it without any protective gear, while Searle will stay behind.
It informed Mike that they were not shooting out of simply an enclosed airlock but that they had the entire pressure of the Icarus 1, or most of it–the part Searle hadn’t closed off at any rate–launching them over to Icarus 2. 
I agree with Mike, however, that a single airlock wouldn’t contain enough atmospheric pressure to shoot them across the void, but its seems to me that nearly the entire pressure of the ship behind them might do the trick. At the very least it is more believable, from a scientific standpoint, even if it’s not perfect science.
As for the impromptu spacewalk itself, Mike says this is all wrong. He informs us that
“After Chris Evans’ character is exposed to the vacuum of space and survives, he just goes on with the suspenseful progression of the film. In reality he’d need to spend time in a barometric chamber. He’d have joint pain and move slowly. And he’d have horrible burns from cosmic radiation.”
Although the barometric chamber thing is true, there cosmic radiation would only burn them horribly—for that short amount of time—if they were fully exposed (naked), and only if they were in direct contact with dangerous cosmic rays, in this case the cosmic rays coming from the sun. But remember, they are behind the Icarus 1 and 2’s heat shield, so many of the cosmic rays of radiation are being blocked by both ships massive heat shields. The freezing to death isn’t entirely true either, as it would likely happen over a long period, as Mike correctly observes. But this is the stuff of science fiction movies—and Sunshine isn’t the only one to play on this freezing to death in space trope.
But what really would happen if you were exposed to the vacuum of space? Well, I’ll let Hank at SciShow explain.
So there you have it.
Although the vacuum exposure scene in Sunshine isn’t wholly accurate, it’s not completely inaccurate either. Mace wrapping himself up in the protective foil and insulation not to be exposed to radiation or cold is quite accurate. The fact that he only is exposed for 20 seconds and is in the vacuum for 45 means he could more than likely survive the ordeal, since it happened with the 1965 test subject at the Jonson Space Flight Center as mentioned by Hank in the above SciShow video . 
The popped blood vessels in Mace’s eyes and skin once he gets back on board Icarus two are also highly accurate of what would be the consequence of such an exposure (the fact that they are completely gone in the briefing room scene is just a continuity error where the scientific tracking failed in favor of carrying the drama—but since this is a dramatic film, that only makes sense. No movie is going to be 100% scientifically accurate 100% of the time).
In the comments section of Mike’s blog I mentioned to him that
“[Y]ou seem to neglect to look at all the science they get dead on. Which is a lot, actually. The reason I say it is one of the most scientifically accurate films is not for the amount it gets wrong, which is no more than any other big budget scifi, but for how much it actually gets right, which is way more than nearly every other scifi film out there.”
Mike replied by asking me:
“What does it get right? I mean seriously, aside from them wearing spacesuits in space and requiring a spacecraft to travel in space, I don’t really see what they got right.”
Well, lots and lots, actually. Let me create a list.
1. The gold suits and the gold heat shields of the ships. Polished gold is the best heat shield possible given our current technology.
2. The joint, international venture of a massive space program like this would require astronauts from all the major countries which supported and funded this particular space program, just like our real life International Space Station. Which is why the director Danny Boyle wanted an multi-racial cast, to more accurately depict how real science organizations and real scientists would be working together at an international level to get such a large scale project off the ground (literally).
3. All the lighting in the Icarus is done as self-contained on the set. That is, all the lighting in the movie is real lighting from the Icarus set, not stage lighting.
4. The space sounds in the film are real space sounds received from space that were captured by a Midwestern university were incorporated into the sound design.
5. Aside from the freezing in space bit, the airlock scene is actually much more accurate than Mike gives it credit for.
6. The actors all went through basic astronaut boot camp including zero gravity flights on an acrobatic plane. Danny Boyle also took the cast onto a nuclear submarine to they would know how to move about crammed spaces and living quarters. This helped the actors make the zero gravity scenes and life aboard the Icarus 2 as realistic as scientifically possible.
7. The design of the Icarus 1 and 2 are done realistically using all of the technology available to us today.
8. The corpses of burn victims in the film were modeled on the Pompeii victims from the Mount Vesuvius eruption, to be as scientifically accurate as possible to those burnt alive by extremely high heat exposure.
9. The original storyboards depicted that the artificial gravity on the ship was due to the massiveness of the bomb, and when they were on Icarus 2 all the gravity pulled in the direction of the payload. This idea was scrapped however, because it would have made filming too difficult to maintain such scientific accuracy throughout the entire film. The fact that they included it up till shooting, however, shows that the filmmakers were aiming for better scientific accuracy than typically seen with other films of this genre (which seems to disprove Mike’s feeling that they weren’t trying with the whole artificial gravity thing).
10. Having a psychologist on board a long duration space flight is something NASA has considered necessary for long term space travel (it is also one of the required accademic requirements for astronauts).
“Behavioral, social, environmental, and industrial psychology can make valuable contributions to space missions. The challenge lies in applying the accumulated knowledge of these disciplines in new and more intense ways. The fundamental space program objectives include: (1) ensuring the physical safety of a space facility from human error or aberrant behavior, and (2) maximizing individual and group productivity. Psychology already has made a remarkable start in the direction of assuring more effective human performance in a variety of applied settings by precisely manipulating schedules of reinforcement and punishment (4).” (See full article here)
11. Captain Kaneda getting fried like an ant under a magnifying lense on a sunny day was fairly accurate. Especially considering he was getting fried by the sun from every which way, thanks to the heat shield’s reflection and amplification of the sun (sun death x2).
12. Capa’s initial sense of claustrophobia seems something even experienced deep sea divers experience from time to time, so his constant struggle with it seems not only accurate to the environmental conditions he had to endure, but to his human psychology.

13. The idea of the terrarium, using plants, for not only food but as an oxygen producer and natural filter for the long duration in space, whether on interstellar missions, space stations, or moon bases was highly accurate to proposals made by NASA.

I could go on listing the things Sunshine gets right. But I think I’ve made my point clear. Although it gets some science wrong, and which science fiction doesn’t(?), it gets a whole lot right.
Finally, I want to address one of Mike’s complains about Captain Pinbacker turned Mr. Crispy. Mike says:
“Nobody could survive for seven years with second- or third-degree burns all over their body without intensive medical care. The surviving captain is portrayed not only as having burns all over his body, but apparently having super strength, a horrifying ghostly deep voice, and cannot be seen clearly for reasons that are unexplained. The effect is without a doubt very cool and it works from a dramatic standpoint, but it’s like Danny Boyl (sic) couldn’t decide whether to make the film a believable science fiction movie or a supernatural horror flick. It casts shades of Event Horizon, but at least that movie had a clear explanation for why shit was getting scary.”
Here it seems that Mike may simply be chasing down another McGuffin. It’s not clear what Pinbacker has become. Like Searle, Pinbacker may have simply become obsessed with the sun. Clearly, he is crazy. When Capa stumbles upon him in the observation room, he turns around and asks Capa if he’s an angel. 
This spooky moment puts it into our minds that this religious nutter has completely lost it, and body mutilation isn’t anything new in the realm of radical religious sects. Burning his own body seems to be part of his new found faith, and as for how he could survive for seven years, well, the terrarium remained functional, and it seems Pinbacker has shut down all of the ship’s functions of Icarus one except for life support and the terrarium. So he obviously went vegan in space.
Is it that hard to fathom? I mean, he is mental, right? He believes God speaks to him, and he believes the Sun is God. He doesn’t want them to destroy the Sun, because it’s his God. So, Pinbacker knows another mission will come, so he holds out for seven long years, waiting for that day when he will have to stop those pesky scientists from destroying his God.
Another interpretation, since the filmakers leave it up to the viewer (which I really like), is that Pinbacker’s God actually is real, and Pinbacker has been granted eternal life. Sure, that may lessen the ‘realism’ quality of the film, but it’s a perfectly valid interpretation. It would also explain how Pinbacker survived for so long in his condition, his weird fluctuation powers, and how his voice changed to something demonic.

I saw this entire part of the film as one giant metaphor for the battle between faith and science, and the fact that our scientists come across a religious zealot willing to sacrifice the fate of all humanity simply to see his religious beliefs through to the end—was chillingly prophetic. Pinbacker represents the threat of the Supernatural, literally, and then on the other side we have–science. And the fact that Capa, our lone protagonist, a lowly physicist, foils Pinbacker’s evil plan with the help of his fellow scientists, and overcomes the insanity and saves the sun and so too planet Earth—using science—gave me such a sense of inspiration and hope.
So ask me if I care how Pinbacker could have survived for those seven years, and I’ll tell you that you’re missing the whole point of the film.

A Brief Reflection on Death

I am reposting my response from Mike D’s (The A-Unicornist) article “On Death and Dying,” which is worth a read. 
The reason I am posting it again here is because it captures, in brief, my thoughts and feelings on the subject of death (you know, just in case you were wondering). It also fits with the last two posts which have been about Japan’s influence on my spiritual journey and worldviews, from when I was still a practicing Christian till now, an ardent atheist.

Having spent so much time in Japan, one of the things that I find fascinating is how much the concept of death, especially related to Buddhist observances, makes up such a profound part of the cultural identity.

Even the beloved picnics under the fading cherry tree blossoms is a sanguine reminder that our time on earth is fleeting.

In fact, this notion is so ingrained in Japanese culture that the ancient samurai would embroider the patterns of cherry tree blossoms into their armor and ceremonial garb as symbols of a swift, fleeting, life. It was viewed as a glorious and noble thing to be born, live well, and die. It was what put such a precedent on living a life of virtue, of being upright and just, and not wasting a single moment–for every moment is fleeting–every moment is slipping through the sands of time.

None of this everlasting life nonsense.

It is why, I think, funerals in Japan are larger than weddings. Funerals can cost upwards of 20 and 30 thousand U.S. dollars. It’s a massive ceremony. It’s the only time you will see all of your relatives. It’s important to remember the lives of those who have passed through the veil into the unknown darkness that lies beyond.It serves a reminder that although our memory may live on after we are gone, we certainly won’t.

I find it consoling, because it lessens the fear of death by making it something beautiful–a part of the journey–a nice book end to a life, rather than the beginning to some new life I never asked for or wanted.

Would I Still Be a Christian if I Hadn’t Come to Japan? Part 2: How A New Perspective on Life and Love Helped Set Me Free

In my personal testimony about my deconversion, of which you can find an extended version of in my recent book Beyond an Absence of Faith (or which you can read the short version on this blog by clicking here), I talk about meeting my Japanese wife and how it was through her that I learned that the Christian beliefs I have elevated as paragons of holiness, reflecting the love of Jesus Christ and God, were in point of fact entirely and wholly inferior to the love expressed through the worldview of a Japanese woman who was raised in a secular Buddhist home and who didn’t believe in any God or gods. 
Needless to say, this revelation shocked me deeply. Which is why I stated that

Learning to respect other people’s beliefs is often the catalyst which forces you to re-examine your own. It’s only after you have stepped outside of your inherited worldview, and experienced a differing worldview, can you truly begin to see it for what it is. This can be a daunting task, because you may come to discover that everything you thought you knew was merely an illusion.

Meeting my wife was the thing that forced me to see that my Christian beliefs were not as loving as I thought they were. In fact, when properly examined they proved to be the opposite. When I made it known among my religious friends and family that I was marrying an non-Christian, there were  a spattering of warnings about being unequally yoked with a nonbeliever, as per 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, and that if I continued on such a path that I should try to convert my non-Christian wife, which is the advice given by most Evangelical institutions
But I found both notions equally un-loving. 
Certainly both positions lacked genuine empathy. Non-believer, you say? Convert! CONVERT!
There is no understanding to be had in this. And if you cannot understand the other person, you cannot empathize with them, and so you cannot sympathize with them.
My Christianity preached a malformed notion of love. A love which wasn’t about loving others for who they were, it was about forcing them into the same mindset as me. It was a way to dictate how others should think and act, according to what my religious beliefs deemed proper, simply so I wouldn’t have to endure the discomfort of checking my worldview for two seconds and contending with other, equally valid worldview, since after all, this way lays doubt.
Anything that challenged my religious worldview was automatically bad, because I presupposed my Christian worldview was automatically right. Looking back, I cannot express how foolish such a notion is, but it is one I held to nonetheless.

One example that comes to mind is when my wife talked to me about all the fun charity activities she had undertaken while she was abroad in China. 
At the time, I had a little trouble wrapping my head around it. Every bit of charity work I had ever experienced as a practicing Christian was part of missionary work designed to bring the saving message of Christ and the word of God to those in dire need of saving. Although it was never stated outright, it almost seemed as if the need to do missionary work wasn’t to help others so much as it was meant to save them from sin, save them from themselves.
The sort of missionary work I did as a Christian certainly wasn’t about walking a mile in another persons shoes. It was more about handing them some fancy new shoes and telling them to walk like me.
But according to my wife’s worldview, the charity and aid work was simply about helping those in need, first and foremost! 
What a novel idea, I thought.
It never even crossed her mind to use the aid work to manipulate the downtrodden and the unfortunate with acts of service and kindness, so they would feel indentured enough to their benefactors that they might suffer to sit and listen to the sermons which accompanied the free Bibles we handed out. 
For my wife, it wasn’t about pushing any belief system. 
It was about saving people, not from imaginary damnation, but from real world suffering!
What a novel idea, indeed.

After hearing her take on things, I looked back on my own missionary aid work with a new found sense of embarrassment. Although I helped build shelters for the impoverished and handed out food to the less fortunate, it was always accompanied with Bibles and Bible studies–prayers, and calls to walk with Christ, and live a Godly life–all of what you might consider a not so subtle brain-washing scheme. 
Although the charity was well received, and the aid work necessary, the latter part–the unabashed proselytizing–was wholly unnecessary. 
In fact, the whole reason missionary work seems to be mainly targeted as developing nations is because their worldviews are relatively simple, uninfluenced and uncomplicated by the multicultural worldviews of the modern world. Additionally, when a people are in need, they will look toward anything that can lift them up, and when you spend as much time and energy (and let’s not forget the $$) helping the downtrodden as the Christian church does, only to tell them they have God to thank for their new blessings, well, they start to believe it. So, let’s not pretend it isn’t extortion, brainwashing, and quite the opposite of loving others without prejudice. Every bit of Christian missionary service reeks of prejudice–the prejudice which accompanies the dominant world religion trying ever so desperately to remain the dominant world religion.
My wife taught me that this was the wrong way to think and be. 
The lesson was simple: to think that my beliefs were more important than anyone else’s was egotistical, arrogant, and conceited. To expect them to change for me, or for what I held to be true while dismissing their position, was unloving.  
She taught me humility. She taught me that being caring, loving, and having genuine empathy for others, regardless their beliefs or their culture, is what was needed, not lip service to some archaic deity.
After proposing to my wife, she had the foresight and the wisdom to, suggest we live together a year before marrying. I reluctantly agreed, but I was glad I had postponed the wedding for that incremental year, as we really learned the truth of whether we were compatible or not. 
Additionally, the slate of small domestic problems which plague first year couples were ironed out early on, a practice which seems to be direly missing among the majority of today’s Christians, as is evident from their extremely high divorce rates they seemingly have. 
During that year, which we spent planning the wedding, I had received a spate of warnings against following through with it. I received numerous emails of concerned friends, strange phone calls from firmly faithful family members, and a passive aggressive sounding letter from an ex-pastor of mine, in which he claimed I had strayed from the flock. What? For loving the woman I was going to marry? Good thing, then, I’m not a goddamn sheep, I thought!
Yet nobody had anything bad to say about my wife as a person. Everyone who met her saw how intelligent, sophisticated, and kind she was. There wasn’t a single excuse they could make as for why I shouldn’t marry her other than she was raised differently, in a different culture, and consequently had different beliefs, but that argument simply didn’t hold any water. 
And then there were the little, more subtle challenges to my faith as well.
I won’t deny it. Sex, was one of them. 
When I met my wife, and we had started dating, I had informed that I was still a virgin. I was twenty-three at the time. She felt that my holding off until I had found the right person was a noble act, regardless of whether it was religiously motivated. But here I was, finally, with the right person. And then the whole question about pre-marital sex raised it’s ugly head.
I felt horribly conflicted, because I wanted to express my deepest felt love for this woman who had won my heart, but was to afraid to go the distance due to the fact that I was, since childhood, told that sex before marriage was a sin, that it would lead to temptations away from Christ, and that Satan could use it against me as a tool of manipulation. 
At first it began with a reluctant blow-job, because I felt that at least this wasn’t full on sex, and I found a way out of the whole premarital sex. A loophole, so to speak. Oral sex didn’t count, because the Bible had nothing to say on it. It only condemned actual, full-on, sex. That’s how I justified it anyway.
But as our relationship grew, and we became closer, it became increasingly hard for me to deny myself the pleasure of falling into someone wholly and completely–of giving my mind, body, and soul to that person and it was only a matter of time before I broke and gave into my baser desires. At least, that’s how it felt at the time.

You see, my religion had made me ashamed of sex. Instead of being free to openly enjoy the person I was with, instead of being free to express my love in such an intimate way, it came with it the stigma of sin, of failure, and of weakness.
Instead of viewing sex as a strong chemical and emotional bond which would strengthen my relationship to the woman I loved, I viewed it as a tarnishing blemish, a blotch, a stain on my spiritual progress. 
After my first time being with the woman I loved, I returned to my abode and shook with teary eyed sobs for my horrible failure as a Christian. I was that entrenched into the belief system that I didn’t separate my personal identity from my religious identity. To me, they were one in the same thing. I defined myself according to how good of a Christian I was, not how good of a person I was.
So, feeling I needed to repent for that grotesque act of engaging in premarital sex, I got down on my knees and prayed to God for forgiveness for what I viewed as a huge failure. I had sinned. And being in Japan, I had nowhere to turn to reinforce my Christian faith, no Christian church to go to so that I may be consoled, no Christian pastor to reprimand me to set me straight, so I did the only thing I could do–I fell to my knees, hands clasped, and grovelled like a good Christian sinner. I begged for my redemption from this unfortunate set-back, this trespass into temptation and lust, this stomach churning act of licentious disobedience. 

But then, nothing came of it except for a wonderful experience. In fact, I began to feel less guilt because I felt better about myself. Engaging in sex opened my eyes to the fact that it wasn’t some ugly, sinful, act that would make Jesus cry, but something quite beautiful and life changing.
My relationship with my future wife grew stronger, and then pretty soon I had pushed the notion that premarital sex was a sin completely out of my mind. The rationale was simple. I felt that if loving somebody utterly and completely was a sin, then God couldn’t truly be a God of love. In other words, I came to realize that to withhold the true, and ultimate expression of love, sex being a part of it, would itself be an unloving act–and to me that seemed distinctly un-Christian-like.
Wedding plans went on without a hitch, until we finally got hitched (if you’ll pardon the pun), and the fact that I had grown as a person, mentally, culturally, and bodily helped me to re-think my spiritual journey as well. And here’s the hitch! 
All these experiences led me to the inevitable conclusion that sex as simply another part of the journey, a part of my own personal story, and it wasn’t as bad as I had been brainwashed into believing it would be. In fact, it was quite wonderful. It was quite frabjously life changing.

Although, to be honest, it’s only in retrospect that I realize all this. At the time, I was a mental train wreck. I kept feeling my life as a devout Christian was being challenged at every turn. I felt spiritual peril, I felt as if my very salvation teetered on the very brink of no return, where it could so easily slip off into precarious sin and I’d end up in eternal damnation–working the corners of the red-light district as a two dollar American gigilo (well, perhaps not exactly that but that’s how it felt).

Naturally, I was shaken by an overwhelming degree of cognitive dissonance, because everything I learned from my wife, and the experiences I have had with her, taught me that this conception of sin simply wasn’t so. That everything I thought on these concerns had, indeed, been wrong. I felt a huge relief come over me when I finally let go of that superstitious notion–and matured into a thinking adult who was more concerned about real-world concerns, like truly helping people, rather than the absurd notion that sticking my pecker into a beautiful, exotic, Asian woman would make Jesus cry.
I struggled for three long agonizing years with this unneeded spiritual turmoil, and it wasn’t until I had finally relinquished my faith that everything became calm, tranquil, and pleasant again. 
It wasn’t until my atheism that I could embrace love making as a part of love, regardless of whether or not I was married, and even then, it took me some time to realize that sex could be done out of sport, just for fun too, and needn’t expressly be tied to concepts of love. 
Post-faith, I saw that kindness and genuine empathy for others demonstrated a more authentic compassion than I had ever experienced in the throes of my most potent religiosity. 

Finally, I came to see that I could love others in an unbridled fashion which wasn’t beholden to any religious rules, regulations, or standards. It was a pure unadulterated love–truly without the diminishing factors of a morbid theology which attempts to wrap the concept of love up into a straight jacket of its own design. No, I left all that behind. I was finally free to love my wife, love others, have real lasting empathy, and I was able to love myself again without the constant feeling that I was a disappointment.
As an atheist, I came to see that I was free to love with all my heart, mind, and soul. Something most Christian know nothing about because their entire concept of love is so tangled up with their religious notions, concepts, and ideologies that they actually experience a type of religious interference to the kinds of love they may experience. 
And I never would have learned that if I hadn’t come to Japan and fallen in love with a girl who had shown me what it truly meant to love.

Would I Still Be a Christian If I Hadn’t Come to Japan? On the Secularizing Power Japanese Syncretism

If I had to sum up the five things Japan is most famous for it would be 1) the contrast between ancient and modern, 2) cherry tree blossoms, 3) the freshest sushi and seafood in the world, 4) rich cultural traditions, and 5) speedy trains. 
Now, many of those can fit neatly into nearly any stereotype of Japan you could imagine but, needless to say, these things are what standout foremost as main staples of Japanese culture.
Perhaps a lesser known element of what makes Japan uniquely Japanese is the extremely high rate of syncretism which exists in Japanese culture. Syncretism is the mixing, or partial mixing, of beliefs, practices, an ideologies–some of which may even be contradictory in nature.

If you are a fan of Japanese anime (animation) or video games you will be familiar with the extreme nature of the synchretism which runs throughout Japanese culture and thought.
Anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, a popular mecha-robot, philosophical themed series, combined a lot of Judeo-Christian imagery, theology, and concepts into the story line. Popular games like the classic Super Mario Bros. combine all sorts of bizarre elements, including a chubby Italian plumber in red and blue overalls, a magic mushroom kingdom, magical blocks with transformative items, magic bean stalks, magic tanuki raccoon suits with flying abilities, drain pipe warps with giant man-eating plants to foil your epic jumps, chain-comps, under water firepower, a pet dinosaur to help you on your journey, a princess in distress, and a dragon–which give the gamer a unique experience.

Syncretism is about mixing and matching, re-arranging concepts, ideas, traditions, into new formations.
This syncretism is prevalent nearly everywhere in Japanese society, and it is also prevalent in Japanese religious attitudes and practices. About the religious situation in Japan, Wikipedia sates:

Japan enjoys full religious freedom based on Article 20 of its Constitution. Upper estimates suggest that 84–96 percent of the Japanese population subscribe to Buddhism or Shinto, including a large number of followers of a syncretism of both religions.[2][176] However, these estimates are based on people affiliated with a temple, rather than the number of true believers. Other studies have suggested that only 30 percent of the population identify themselves as belonging to a religion.[177] According to Edwin Reischauer and Marius Jansen, some 70–80% of the Japanese regularly tell pollsters they do not consider themselves believers in any religion.[178]

Although Japan is roughly 80% secular, many of the approximately three thousand year old religious traditions and practices are still observed, which is why many Japanese will claim they are Shinto or Buddhist even thought they may not know anything about those particular religions aside from the related cultural holidays which they have observed since they were children. 
Over time, these traditional Japanese religious practices have melded together into one of Japanese observance. Instead of a particular religious observance superseding Japanese culture, such as with the well-known example of Buddhism, these foreign elements have become incorporated into Japanese culture and have become a kind of Japanese observance. Japanese thus view these assimilated religious rituals as part of their national identity even if these religious elements didn’t originate in Japan, and/or even if they as a people aren’t particularly religious.
Another thing to note is that the religious beliefs and rituals in Japan have frequently grown entangled, often times fusing together as do two trees which grow into one.
One of the peculiar things I noticed when I first came to Japan was that every year, during hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year) or obon (the Japanese Buddhist observance of death) when Japanese people take time out of their busy schedules to visit the ossuaries and grave sites of their deceased loved ones, they will place a white sheet of rice paper over the Shinto shrine, usually in the kitchen above the mantle in their homes, so that it will not be in direct view of the Buddhist shrine or alter, usually situated in the living room area in a hide-away closet. 
The reason for this is because, due to roughly a two-thousand year history of having the two religions living domestically side by side, they have developed competing gods of death. If the two gods were to see each other all chaos would break loose, or at least that’s the feeling I get from why they do it.

So the veil of paper over the Shinto shrine is to ensure a lasting peace between Shintoism and Buddhism. But such a belief could only arise if the Shinto gods and Buddhist gods all played together on the same playing field, rather than as separate religions. That is to say, there is enough syncretism to ensure that specific religious observances were developed especially to take into consideration both religious points of view since there was a mingling between the two.

This mingling of the two main religions of Japan can also be seen in the basic architecture of their places of worship and religious ceremony. On the Wiki article for Shinto shrines, it informs us that

Shrines weren’t of course completely immune to change, and in fact show various influences, particularly that of Buddhism, a cultural import which provided much of Shinto architecture’s vocabulary. Therōmon (楼門 tower gate?),[note 5] the haiden, the kairō (回廊 corridor?), the tōrō, or stone lantern, and the komainu, or lion dogs, (see below for an explanation of these terms) are all elements borrowed from Buddhism.

So Japan can be viewed as a giant syncretic melting pot of sorts. And this seems to be especially true with regard to Japan’s religious beliefs and practices. It is often jokingly said that Japanese are born Shinto, get married as Christians, and die as Buddhists. It’s because of the religious syncretism of Japanese culture going on behind the scenes which makes such a joke so revealing about a highly fascinating aspect of Japanese life.
I often see Mormon missionaries peddling their religion (literally peddling–around–trying to sell Japanese their religion) all over Japan, and upon seeing a foreign face they often stop to have a chat.
Most of the time I ask them about what sorts of culture shocks they have experienced while in Japan, as this makes for interesting conversation, but they usually start to plug away their religion after a brief exchange and that’s when I politely wish them luck and go on my way.
The thing is, for anyone who has spent time in Japan, introducing a new religion is practically impossible. At least, introducing a religious set of beliefs and practices and hoping that they get adopted is futile. The reason is simply that Japanese syncretism will take those religious beliefs, practices, and ideas only to dismantle, rearrange, and incorporate them in often bizarre ways–and fit them to suit their unique Japanese world view.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this is the adoption of Christian styled wedding services. All across Japan you can see full scale replicas of famous European cathedrals, like St. Valentine’s Cathedral, and you would think that with all these churches all over Japan that Japan had a large Christian demographic, but you’d be wrong.
There is nothing particularly Christian about these churches except that a bride, wearing a white dress, will frequently get married in one. And even then, the wedding service istelf, toted as a traditional Western wedding repeat with an English speaking pastor or priest (English speaking!), aren’t all that Christian. Even the English speaking pastor or priest turns out to be a paid actor half of the time. As for the service, it looks Western in terms of aesthetics, but everything else is Japanese. The guests still get seated the Japanese way, with your boss and co-workers up front and your family members all the way in the back corner. And the food is often times seafood, so none of that kosher business. And there are no prayers to be said or blessings to be bestowed, but that could be a good thing depending on your point of view.
So syncretism goes a long way, I think, in stripping religion of its notion of the sacred, by taking what is sacred and slamming it into the giant ball of clay with everything else and then mashing it up and reforming it into something entirely new–with some familiar elements, if any at all.
Although I don’t have hard data to confirm that syncretism contributes to Japan’s high rate of secularism, I would presume that it plays a large roll in maintaining Japan’s overall secularism.
I say this, in part, because when there is no dominant religion, things tend to get assimilated into the culture, and then the culture takes these elements into itself and does what it wants with them regardless of their original context. 
As such, the religious practices and traditions of newer religions, like Christianity or even Mormonism, play a minor role in how Japanese people think about these religions as religions. In reality, they are relatively unimportant to the Japanese, who already have ancient religions which are as much of their cultural identity as karaoke, cherry blossoms, samurai, and sumo wrestling. If the Japanese are to adopt any religious beliefs and practices, it will be within the context of the Japanese mindset, and then, only according to how those foreign beliefs or practices can be incorporated as part of the Japanese identity.
In fact, foreign religious beliefs typically get shaped to Japanese sensibilities for specifically Japanese usages, and only fragments of their core meaning will survive the transition, and then, they will often take on a whole new meaning in the process. I think an apt analogy would be to consider that instead of Christian missionaries bringing the Evangelion to the Japanese people and converting them to Christianity, what happens is the Christian beliefs get run through the factory of Japanese syncretism and what comes out is Neon Genesis Evangelion.

At least, this is the process as such. But such syncretism can be seen in everyday customs and practices. I’ll use a real world example which I am sure many who know Japanese culture well will be familiar with.

While in Western culture the virgin bride’s white wedding dress is a sign of virtue and chastity, in Japan it gets transformed to simply an aesthetic element and has little more meaning to it other than it looks particularly Western, and so is desired by young Japanese couples who want to have an exotic wedding, since white wedding dresses are exotic in Japan! That is to say, they aren’t kimonos and they have an entirely different appeal here.
Reflecting back on my time in Japan, I have come to see that the syncretism of Japanese culture unexpectedly played a large role in my own loss of religious faith. 
Although I was unaware of how it was influencing me at the time, when I saw how my sacred beliefs kept being misapplied, malformed, and misunderstood it became clear that the underlying importance wasn’t what the initial belief may have been about or what the content necessarily contained, but how one could take that and make an unfamiliar religious ritual meaningful to them. 
Of course, from my fundamentalist view at the time it rubbed me the wrong way–it seemed overly unorthodox if not dangerously heretical to my pious worldview. 
When I got married here in Japan, I was still a believing Christian. I took measures to ensure that the we got a qualified Christian reverend to marry us, and that we had an authentic Christian wedding alongside a Japanese Shinto wedding, just to be right with God. After all, at the time, I felt a Shinto wedding by itself wouldn’t be recognized in the eyes of the Christian God, and a Christian style wedding wouldn’t be recognized in God’s eyes either if it wasn’t authentic, and at the time, as a devout believer, I didn’t want to be living a lie–pretending I was married when my union wasn’t recognized by God as a “holy” union.
I was literally worried, as irrational as it seems now, that if I consummated my marriage on my wedding night that it might be a “sin” if I wasn’t truly married in the eyes of God. Basically, I was worried that sleeping with my wife might be considered pre-marital sex if our union wasn’t sanctioned by God and according to the tenets of my faith. 
So I made sure it was fully authentic, just to be on the safe side, and my concerns abated.
Yet this initial discomfort of recognizing that the Christian wedding wasn’t a true, or authentic, Christian wedding is one of the things that challenged me to think through why it was this way and what it all meant in the grander scheme of things. 
Indeed, it challenged me to think about my beliefs more closely, and it forced me to consider alternative contexts for placing those beliefs in. It basically was a naturalistic version of what the atheist thinker John W. Loftus has coined as the Outsider Test for Faith. Literally, I had to step out of my own cultural confines and think about my beliefs as an outsider, as a Japanese (walk a mile in the other person’s shoes, so to speak), so that I could understand how to correct what I viewed then as a misapplication of Christian beliefs, customs and practices for the wedding ceremony where those beliefs, customs and practices took on a new form and meaning.
This was, of course, the first step toward a gradual crawl toward atheism, because although I didn’t realize it at the time, the challenge to account for Japanese syncretism and to make sense of two different yet overlapping worldviews forced me to work twice as hard to justify my religious beliefs and practices, to make sure they continued to have meaning, but the end process was that I finally realized that–they didn’t have any inherent meaning apart from the meaning imbued by me.

The only meaning my religious beliefs, customs and practices had was what I brought to them.

After realizing this important lesson, it was far easier for me to accept Japanese syncretism and the often strange consequences of picking and choosing what one liked from the proverbial nabemono pot, a popular dish in Japan filled with literally everything and anything you could desire. 
So, to make a short answer long, I think without the unique challenges I faced when I came to Japan, without having met my Japanese wife, without having had to re-examine my own beliefs, without having to account for various differences in our beliefs, customs, and practices I wouldn’t have been put into the position to find a context to place them in that would be compatible with two different worldviews simultaneously, and I very well may have remained a believing Christian.*

I am so lucky then, that I came to Japan! It helped me grow in ways I could never have even imagined. It helped me to see the world through a fresh lens. I gained a new perspective, and in the process, part of me became assimilated by Japanese culture and I will be the first to admit I am better off for it.

*Just a quick side note: Although I think I would have remained a Christian for a longer time if I hadn’t come to Japan, I do, however, think that there were other mitigating factors that would have triggered my gradual crawl toward atheism as well. In my mind though, it was the unique challenges Japanese culture posed to me that hastened my transition from pious minded believer to secular minded atheist.


Corporal Punishment is Wrong: Why Spanking = Child Abuse: Or Why Dr.James Dobson is a Crank and an Immoral Quack

A topic which hit close to home (no pun intended) arose after a Facebook friend tagged me in a post. Now, this friend happens to be of a highly religious sort, and so I was extremely polite in my response to the post, since this friend wanted my atheistic opinion on some things regarding science and evolution, and–naturally–I am more than happy to wax on at length about such subjects.
But what really caught my interest was a post immediately afterward in which she linked to a Dr. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family fame, article about corporal punishment. Here is the full article, since I think it’s worth responding to, if only to reveal every single fallacy here–and to explicitly and emphatically state, contrary to what “Dr.” James Dobson may think, spanking or otherwise beating, whipping, abusing, or harming helpless children for any reason–any reason whatsovever–is always, without a doubt, WRONG. W-R-O-N-G.

Corporal punishment, when used lovingly and properly, is beneficial to a child because it is in harmony with nature itself. Consider the purpose of minor pain in a child’s life and how he learns from it. Suppose two-year-old Peter pulls on a tablecloth and with it comes a vase of roses that cracks him between the eyes. From this pain, he learns that it is dangerous to pull on the tablecloth unless he knows what sits on it. When he touches a hot stove, he quickly learns that heat must be respected. If he lives to be a hundred years old, he will never again reach out and touch the red-hot coils of a stove. The same lesson is learned when he pulls the doggy’s tail and promptly gets a neat row of teeth marks across the back of his hand, or when he climbs out of his high chair when Mom isn’t looking and discovers all about gravity.

During the childhood years, he typically accumulates minor bumps, bruises, scratches, and burns, each one teaching him about life’s boundaries. Do these experiences make him a violent person? No! The pain associated with these events teaches him to avoid making the same mistakes again. God created this mechanism as a valuable vehicle for instruction.

When a parent administers a reasonable spanking in response to willful disobedience, a similar nonverbal message is being given to the child. He must understand that there are not only dangers in the physical world to be avoided. He should also be wary of dangers in his social world, such as defiance, sassiness, selfishness, temper tantrums, behavior that puts his life in danger, that which hurts others, etc. The minor pain associated with this deliberate misbehavior tends to inhibit it, just as discomfort works to shape behavior in the physical world. Neither conveys hatred. Neither results in rejection. Neither makes the child more violent.

In fact, children who have experienced corporal punishment from loving parents do not have trouble understanding its meaning. I recall my good friends Art and Ginger Shingler, who had four beautiful children whom I loved. One of them went through a testy period where he was just “asking for it.” The conflict came to a head in a restaurant, when the boy continued doing everything he could to be bratty. Finally, Art took him to the parking lot for an overdue spanking. A woman passerby observed the event and became irate. She chided the father for “abusing” his son and said she intended to call the police. With that, the child stopped crying and said to his father, “What’s wrong with that woman, Dad?” He understood the discipline even if his rescuer did not. A boy or girl who knows that love abounds at home will not resent a well-deserved spanking. One who is unloved or ignored will hate any form of discipline!

Before we begin deconstructing what Dr. Dobson has to say, it’s worth prefacing this essay with a point that was made clear by Psychologist George W. Holden, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when he stated that, “Parental use of corporal punishment is the single most controversial and emotionally charged topic in parent—child relationships.”
This is true. In fact, I think this sensitivity extends well beyond just the parent and child relationships and goes on to affect other parent to parent relationships as well.
Earlier this year, in an October Sky moment, I pealed off a father abusing his son in the bathroom of the local mall. The kid had taken his soda into the restroom and had spilled it and his father reacted poorly. I watched as two hard swats on the child’s butt turned into hits in the face. At that time, I rushed over and got in between the child and the father and pushed that dad back. After informing to knock it off or take it up with me outside, he grabbed his child by the arm and dragged him out of the restroom.
My point in bringing it up, as sensitive as the topic may be, is that often times the children who are on the receiving end of the abuse of violent adults have no say in the matter. So, apologies in advance if it seems that I am overstepping my bounds in presuming to know how to be a better parent than those parents who willfully inflict pain on children with fists, belts, sticks and canes–all in the name of “love.”
Now, it seems to me that “Dr.” Dobson’s appalling position with regard to corporal punishment is wholly misguided, in part, because Dr. Dobson is holy ignorant of the research in the field of child psychology and development. The reason I say this is because, if you browse both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychological Association’s webpages, both explicitly hold that corporal punishment is a form of child abuse. The APsaA states:

The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) condemns the use of physical punishment (corporal punishment) in the discipline of children and recommends alternative methods that enhance children’s capacities to develop healthy emotional lives, tolerate frustration, regulate internal tensions, and behave in socially acceptable ways.

Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association has this to say with regard to corporal punishment:

Whereas the resort to corporal punishment tends to reduce the likelihood of employing more effective, humane, and creative ways of interacting with children;

Whereas it is evident that socially acceptable goals of education, training, and socialization can be achieved without the use of physical violence against children, and that children so raised, grow to moral and competent adulthood;

Whereas corporal punishment intended to influence “undesirable responses” may create in the child the impression that he or she is an “undesirable person”; and an impression that lowers self-esteem and may have chronic consequences;

Whereas research has shown that to a considerable extent children learn by imitating the behavior of adults, especially those they are dependent upon; and the use of corporal punishment by adults having authority over children is likely to train children to use physical violence to control behavior rather than rational persuasion, education, and intelligent forms of both positive and negative reinforcement;

Whereas research has shown that the effective use of punishment in eliminating undesirable behavior requires precision in timing, duration, intensity, and specificity, as well as considerable sophistication in controlling a variety of relevant environmental and cognitive factors, such that punishment administered in institutional settings, without attention to all these factors, is likely to instill hostility, rage, and a sense of powerlessness without reducing the undesirable behavior;

Therefore, be it resolved that the American Psychological Association opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child care nurseries, and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated (Conger, 1975).

This is the position of health care professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists, and special needs educators. This is the STANDARD position toward corporal punishment for all relevant fields related to child, child psychology, and child development. Accordingly, “Dr.” James Dobson is just flat out wrong when it comes to his position that corporal punishment is at all an effective measure or can be administered “lovingly” because it’s not and it can’t.
Notice that “Dr.” Dobson stresses that:

Corporal punishment, when used lovingly and properly, is beneficial to a child because it is in harmony with nature itself. 

I have to question Dobson’s reasoning here, for several reasons. 
Corporal punishment is the deliberate act of an intentional agent, for example, the child’s parents. In this case, it’s an intentional act of intentionally inflicting harm. 
Nature simply is *not an intentional agent. Furthermore, nature is not seeking out the child to punish them, or cause them any harm, for any perceived wrong doing. Rather, the pain a child may face in the real world is part of everyday growing pains. 
It’s true that a child will, through trial and error, learn what things hurt and in developing skills, muscle coordination, foresight to predict hazardous situations, and eventually discover the ability to avoid these painful experiences on their own in the future.
Not so with corporal punishment. 
There are two reasons for this. 
One is the arbitrary nature of what the parents, or arbiters of social rules and regulations, set for the child. Because these rules and regulations are highly subjective, and there is no way to see which rules and regulations the parent values above others, the child doesn’t always know why they are being inflicted with pain, and cannot reason a way to avoid such pain except to try to obey the parents / arbiters of the social rules even more. 
As such, this form of punishment only teaches the child to fear the parents and those who should have the child’s best interest in mind. 
The second reason corporal punishment is wrong is simply that is has not ever demonstrated positive effects through its implementation. That is, it has zero net results. Parents might contend this point, saying that it worked for them, or when they were young it worked on them, but this only seeks to reinforce the first objection. That there is no standard for what constitutes moral discipline, and the child cannot always determine when the parent is trying to teach them something or when the parent is just an emotional wreck and has flown off the handle bars.
In a large-scale meta-analysis of 88 studies, psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, PhD, of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, looked at both positive and negative behaviors in children that were associated with corporal punishment. Her research and commentaries on her work are published in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association. As to the effectiveness of corporal punishment, Gershoff informs:
“Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use…”
There are more problems with “Dr.” Dobson reasoning as well. Take this passage for example:
When a parent administers a reasonable spanking in response to willful disobedience, a similar nonverbal message is being given to the child. He must understand that there are not only dangers in the physical world to be avoided. … In fact, children who have experienced corporal punishment from loving parents do not have trouble understanding its meaning. 
When spanking is being administered to a child, it is not always clear what the nonverbal message is supposed to be.
In fact, more often than not, the message is UNCLEAR to the child. Worse still, it was unclear to the adult who administered the spanking. This was made evident in this appalling results of a 2014 study done by Southern Methodist University.
In real-time audio recordings of children being spanked, psychologists and child experts found that parents responded impulsively or emotionally, rather than being intentional with their discipline. Furthermore, researchers discovered that spanking was more common than parents admit, that children were hit for trivial misdeeds, and that children misbehaved within ten minutes of punishment.
Punishment is the correct term her, because what these studies have shown is that there is zero effective disciplinary learning. Unlike “Dr.” Dobson’s example of nature, which children can learn not to do something in response to the painful stimuli they have received, thereby learning how to avoid similar experiences in the future, no such learning can be gained via corporal punishment.
So it is evident that when “Dr.” Dobson claims parents administer reasonable spankings which, in turn, the children do not have trouble understanding–he is speaking out of his hat. That is, he is wrong, as all the research shows the opposite is true. Parents usually do not apply reasonable spankings within reason and the message is hardly ever clear, if at all.
Also see these articles on corporal punishment:

Finally, the think that bothers me about “Dr.” Dobson is that in his mind the physical abuse of children can be equated with love.
“In fact, children who have experienced corporal punishment from loving parents…”

No, I have to strongly disagree. Hitting a child when you have more than 70% the body mass of that child is not a loving act. It’s a terrible, horrifying act that has proved to emotionally scar children. It’s a grotesque act. To think that violence inflicted on a hapless child as a way of shaping that child could at all be a loving act is a grotesque and vile misconception. 
As the psychologist Dr. Holden has expressed:

“Psychologists who are concerned with children’s development promoting effective parenting would be remiss were they to advocate or justify spanking in the face of the evidence… This review reflected the growing body of evidence indicating that corporal punishment does no good and may even cause harm.”

I’m afraid Dr. Dobson’s position is immoral and unjustifiable given what we do know about corporal punishment. The fact that Dobson advises parents to take this line of “discipline” with their own children is just shockingly grotesque. I cannot abide by such ignorance and malice toward children. Especially when both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychological Association advise us in other ways to discipline (see here and here) that do not involve corporal punishment.
Subsequently, as defined by both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychological Association, corporal punishment is undeniably a form of unwarranted child abuse.
In closing, I feel the monologue by the comedian, and father, Louis C.K. expresses it best, when he says:

“I really think it’s crazy that we hit our kids. It really is. Here’s the crazy part about it. Kids are the only people in the world that you’re allowed to hit. Do you realize that? They’re the most vulnerable and they’re the most destroyed by being hit, but it’s totally OK to hit them. And they’re the only ones! If you hit a dog, you go to jail for that!”

My Thoughts on the Refining Reason: Matt Dillahunty vs. Sye Ten Bruggencate

Matt Dillahunty recently debated Sye Ten Bruggencate in Memphis, TN, in the good old U.S. of A. I watched it specifically because I have been interested in how others attempt to respond to the Presuppositionalist position, which amounts to little more than a lofty conceit. 
If you haven’t seen the video, please watch it (but only if you really, seriously, honestly, have nothing better to do). It’s rather long, but it’s very interesting for various reasons I’ll get to.
If you’re not familiar, the Presuppositionalist position is that God exists, or rather, they say we KNOW God exists. Thus, via this one presupposition they can get the whole of the Christian worldview off the ground.
The argument is designed to challenge the philosophical and methodological views of naturalism, because under the naturalistic paradigm one has to presuppose more than God to explain things like knowledge, reason, morality, cognitive ability, etc. Actually, under the naturalistic wordlview, each one of these requires their own presuppositions, or related assumptions, to get off the ground.
Thus, Presuppositionalists claim that the naturalistic worldview is overly complicated, and thus faulty, because it acts like a Rube Goldberg machine, needlessly multiplying assumptions to get to conclusions which simply fall out of the Presuppositionalist’s singular assumption that God is real.
If God is real, then the Christian worldview is true, and therefore morality and cognition all derive from God. Simple. To the point.

Sye Ten Bruggencate (STB or Sye from hereon) opened the debate with a syllogistic definition of Presuppositionalism which went something like this:

1. It is reasonable to believe that which is true.

2. It is true that God exists.

3. Therefore it is reasonable to believe in God. 

Now, syllogisms are fine, because they are a way to structure ideas in a hierarchy to help us check if the conclusions logically fall out of the previous assumptions. If not, then the syllogism loses it’s coherence and you end up devolving into a fallacy or end with an illogical/faulty claim.
Yet syllogisms, although having a logical structure, do not necessarily mean the idea the syllogism is putting forth is logically valid. That is, via inductive reasoning the logic is valid but the argument is unsound because one of the premises is probably not true.
1. It is reasonable to believe that which is true.

2. It is true that all women love Tristan Vick.

3. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that all women love Tristan Vick.

As Sye’s syllogism goes, the first premise is fine. I can get on board with the claim that it is reasonable to believe in things that are true.
The second claim, however, needs unpacking–because it is smuggling in extra assumptions that need to be shown to follow the logical hierarchy of the syllogism. How do we know it is true that God exists? We don’t know. Something is missing here. 

Clearly, Sye has not shown how it is “true” that God exists so we have no reason to believe it is true God exists, thus the syllogism is faulty because we cannot get back to it is reasonable to believe that which is true.
Granted, this is what Sye presupposes. But presupposing something doesn’t make it true. I could presuppose, for example, that the world if flat, or that the sun revolves around the Earth, and this would not make my presuppositions valid. They would still be wrong.

Which is why Matt kept asking Sye to demonstrate the link between the presupposition God exist and the claim it is true God exists.
It seems, however, that Matt’s challenge went over Sye’s head. Or else, Sye simply doesn’t think presuppositions need post hoc justifications. But Matt’s not wrong. 
The reason why we would want to justify any given presupposition of ours is to check it against the evidence to see if what we presupposed was indeed the case. Although Sye would never admit it, presuppositions can, in the grand scheme of things, still be wrong.

I thought Matt did exceptionally well in this debate, and the trick he used was simple, yet effective. Every time Sye pushed the question on whether Matt knew for certain any given claim, Matt said he believed that he knew.
Matt when through great pains to show what a maximal truth claim was as opposed to an absolute truth claim, and he demonstrated that holding maximal truths gets us far enough to saying something is true, even though we could never prove it absolutely.

This also seemed to go over Sye’s head.
There was a lot more content in this video, and I do recommend watching it, if not simply to get a good idea of how to respond to presuppositionalist claims. But what I want to talk about next are some of the appalling things that came out of Sye Ten Bruggencate’s mouth.
During the Q&A time with the audience an audience member asked him if he thought Democracy was the best political system available and Sye said no, that he thought theocracy was the best possible political system.
Yikes! Right?

Sye also gave his refutation to a Muslim gentleman, or a man posing a question as a Muslim would (it wasn’t clear if he was actually Muslim or just trying to make a point) by asking that if Sye feels the Bible is the world of God and an authority, why wouldn’t he allow for the Koran to be the word of God and an authority?
Sye goes through a quick logical evaluation of what the Koran says about the Bible (namely that it was a previous divine revelation from God) and Sye asks, rhetorically, why a Muslim wouldn’t accept the Bible ask God’s word, and informs they would say the Bible is corrupted. But because of the Koran’s claim that the Bible is true, and the Bible claims there can be no other revelations from God and that all others are false-revelations, he then declares the Koran false/invalid.
But that’s where he conveniently ends the critical evaluation. If he would have taken it one step further, he would have run into a problem. If the Koran is false, as Sye claims, then when it says the Bible is true would, as a consequence, also be false. Therefore the Bible is false.
But nobody said Sye was a good critical thinker.
When some audience members tried to quiz Sye on some apparent Bible contradictions he dodged, ducking their questions by saying, “I don’t do Bible studies with atheists.”
Why? Probably because he’s an asshole. But that’s just my opinion. As a Christian, he should love his enemy, as Christ taught, and help them come to God through Christ through teaching them the scripture, since that is what the Bible teaches. So if Sye was a true Christian who was true to his beliefs, he’d be more than willing to do Bible studies with atheists. As it is, he just didn’t want to answer pressing questions that revealed faults in the holy book he presupposes is the flawless divine revelation of God.
One more thing that shows Sye is dishonest, apart from being rude to atheists, and being overly conceited by believing his position if inviolable and without need of justification, is the way he deliberately went out of his way to use video clips, taken out of context and re-arranged, to make Matt look like he contradicts himself or is confused. There is not reason for Sye to make his opponent look bad, since Sye could have challenged Matt on any of the points taken from the video snippets and simply have asked him during the back and forth exchanges, all four of them. Instead, Sye spent much of his time trying to proselytize to the audience. 
But when you have a mainly secular audience, the majority of which are atheists and agnostics, starting out by saying they all *know God exists, even though they’re atheists, and that they are lying to themselves and will all go to Hell, is probably not the best way to get the audience on your side in the debate. 
But this only goes to show how callous Sye is, and demonstrates he is virtually without any sense of empathy whatsoever. A problem many extremely religious minded types seem to have.
There is a lot more to be said about this debate, but go ahead and watch it, that is, if you want to waste two hours of your life. Although, if you have better things to do, then by all means, do that instead!